Guy Barash is a modern classical composer. His works include orchestral, chamber, vocal, and electroacoustic compositions, as well as music for theater. He has also incorporated text in various settings and arrangements. His recent release, Facts About Water, was a highlight of 2014. Recently he took some time to answer a few questions.
I understand that you developed an interest in music very early in life. How did this interest begin for you?
Since childhood, back in Israel, music has been a big part of my life. Neither of my parents is a professional musician. However, they both played an instrument, and there was always music playing at home. At the age of four I wanted to play the violin. So I did. For almost two years, my mother and I took weekly Suzuki violin sessions. Then I wanted to play piano, too, and started taking lessons. At the age of 11 I decided to add guitar to the mix, and then bass… I started my undergraduate studies in music composition right after high school. At the University of Haifa I met the composer Arik Shapira. He became my first composition teacher: harmony, counterpoint, aural skills, solfège, orchestration, what not. The Nadia Boulanger style. Through chorale dictations, and endless fugues and other exercises, that was the only way into the secret world of great composers! Oy.
I admit, though, it taught me discipline, which is a trait that can be very helpful for composers. More importantly, Shapira was the one who really introduced me to electronic music. After spending some time in studios, learning basic techniques, I became his assistant. In the few years prior to moving to New York I realized all of Shapira’s electronic scores. I learned so much from this process. I personally recommend that every young composer spend some time as an apprentice. This is the best way to learn.
My first piece was a tape piece. A dark, acerbic electronic miniature for the end of time as we know it. So much teen angst! But fixed media didn’t satisfy me. I discovered Max/MSP and whole new world of sound opened up. I began experimenting with the possibilities. And they were endless. Through these experiments I refined my sound world, my approach, and my style. Whether I’m writing for electronic media or for traditional instruments without any processing, “electronic thinking” informs both my palette and my perspective.
In 2008 I moved to New York for graduate studies at NYU Steinhardt. Among my most influential teachers were Joan La Barbara and Morton Subotnick. That experience liberated me and my writing in ways that I’m just starting to understand. You grow up learning invaluable skills, imitate your teachers, your idols, but then what? How does a young composer establish a unique voice? It was then when I found that small seed that could grow into my compositional language.
Were you immediately drawn to modern classical music, or was that passion developed over time?
At four I unfortunately hadn’t discovered modern music. The first time I remember hearing modern music was at around the age of 14. One day I arrived to a guitar lesson and when I entered there was a Stockhausen record playing. It immediately caught my attention, and we spent most of the lesson talking about what the hell this was! That was basically the only good thing I took from my guitar teacher. But hey, that’s big!
Your music seems primarily composed. Do you incorporate elements of improvisation as well? Can you discuss your compositional approach in general?
I am particularly interested in exploring the juxtaposition of improvised materials with composed ones. For example, in some of my works you can hear one instrument, or even a section improvising while another is playing composed materials. That provides the frame, or the limits for the improvised material. Sometimes, for instance in my piano piece Talkback IV for piano and computer, you hear one hand playing composed music while the other is playing freer gestures. This is the source for some of my favorite textures.
However, even my improvised sections have their rules and limitations within themselves. I am constantly looking for new ways to convey, and graphically represent improvised sections, and their limitations, in a way that will really encapsulate the type of improvisation and its characteristics. Basically to create a bank of improvised events. It helps me refine the process that I described above, to hear the improvised elements more clearly in order to anticipate what will work well with certain composed elements.
Your use of time is interesting – various foreground and background voices seem out of synch at times, but in a natural but disturbing way. How did this style develop?
The perception of time in general interests me. And specifically in music, the way we feel time passing, the sense of pulse, synchronicity, and how all of these relate to each other. I play on these things, the expectations that make us believe we can measure time, or even feel when sequences or events are synchronized or not. It also relates to the subject of memory, which is something that I am now exploring further in my music. I think it started from searching for new ways to create the sense of polyphony. The juxtaposition of free and notated materials, and the interplay between foreground and background create the illusion of polyphony.
You have been curating performances at several New York venues of late. How did that start and how is it going?
I have been curating the Eavesdropping concert series for over five years already. Originally, it started at The Tank and lasted there for three years. Then I moved it to Spectrum two years ago. I do it completely voluntarily. I believe there is a lot of value in having a place for more adventurous musical explorations within the new music scene. I try to trigger a conversation between composers, performers, and audience members. I choose settings like Spectrum, that are more intimate, in order to bring these, the components of a lively contemporary music community, closer together. It’s a healthy dynamic that we need to nurture.
The series, Eavesdropping, keeps evolving every season. Next year I am thinking to have more workshop-like installments where audience members could actually participate and learn something new.
The album, Facts About Water, captures a small yet important fragment of my artistic journey. It is a snapshot of a cycle: inspiration, reflection, creation that started one day at the local bookstore as I was looking for text to set to music. I came across the poetry of Nick Flynn, which began a new cycle. After playing with his words for a while I had the idea that this exploration can evolve into a bigger project.
I reached out to Nick without knowing too much about who he was and what else he wrote aside from the poem Imagination) that moved me; it had a rhythm that immediately translated into music. After a quick chat on the phone we decided to meet. What I didn’t know was that this meeting in a Brooklyn café one evening in the Fall of 2008 would develop into the ongoing fruitful collaboration that it has.
At the time he was working on a new book. I had the fortune to see raw materials, to get a rare glimpse into Nick’s process. It inspired me deeply. We started working on Proteus, an evening-long multimedia oratorio that explored central themes in post-9/11 American life. The piece was premiered at Galapagos Art Space, and presented again at The Tank alongside video projections by Jared Handelsman and Brendan Byrne. Concurrently, the same raw texts grew into Nick Flynn’s second memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, in which he includes many water references. This is something that resonates with my aesthetic. Water is the source, and I usually start composing a piece with a very simple thematic material that provides the source from which the larger structure evolves. A series of prose-poem like miniatures, fragmented chapters, assemble the memoir.
One of these fragments is Facts About Water that provided the title for the album. I find the title very ironic. Water is something that’s always changing, transforming, while facts are constant, fixed, dogmatic even. To me it is a metaphor to forcing rules on things that don’t want to follow them by nature.
In my first string quartet, Wrong Ocean (the title is also from The Ticking is the Bomb), you can hear multiple layers or sequences of sonic events, that at times may sound conflicting, but constantly want to synchronize. All within a microtonal environment that can feel very disorienting to both the performer and the listener. It reflects the state of mind that I was in while writing the piece. At the time I was going through a personal process that was somewhat confusing and disorienting. It redefined the way I see and perceive things, transformed me in a way. I think Wrong Ocean really captures the transformative quality of that moment in time.
Originally, Blind Huber was an audio-visual rendition of seven poems from Nick Flynn’s second book of poems. In his book, “Flynn invites us to consider the intricate geometry of the beehive. Our guide to this new world is Blind Huber, loosely based on the eponymous eighteenth-century beekeeper whose fifty-year obsession uncovered most of what we know today about the hive.” I derived my structural and textural palette for this piece from the geometry of the beehive and the sonic environment within and around it. For his video projections, Jared Handelsman had documented a yearlong cycle of honeybees around the Catskill Mountains.
The piece was commissioned by Electronic Music Foundation with support from Jerome Foundation, and premiered at Greenwich House. Seven Testimonies is based on early versions of Nick Flynn’s poems from The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. The poems, as Flynn describes in his endnote, “are redacted versions of the testimonies of seven Abu Ghraib detainees.” In the original Proteus oratorio they were separated into seven ritornellos that served as the Greek chorus. Proteus is a monologue for male voice and electronic processing. In Greek mythology Proteus is an early sea-god. He can foretell the future, but will change his shape to avoid having to; he will answer only to someone who is capable of capturing him. In the piece, with compositional and electronic means, I am trying to portray the shapeshifting quality of Proteus, to capture him.
Facts About Water was produced by Elliott Sharp and released on Innova Recordings in May 2014.
Let’s talk influences. I hear George Crumb and Fred Lerdahl. Am I close? Which composers have played the largest roles in the development of your approach?
György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Iannis Xenakis, and Gérard Grisey had much deeper influence on my aesthetic. So did Jimi Hendrix, Velvet Underground, Pixies, and the Tiger Lillies, whom I used to listen to a lot as a teenager. And John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Wayne Shorter as well. In my music I always try to achieve the rawness that they had in playing so naturally.
However, my biggest influences are extramusical: film, poetry, and visual art have had a significant role in defining my aesthetic. We artists are all trying to solve the same “problem”. It is more interesting to me to see how artists from other disciplines approach it. I feel like I can learn more from them.
What do you have coming up in terms of performances and releases that we should know about?
The next installment of Eavesdropping is Sunday, May 17th, 7:00pm at Spectrum. Kate Dillingham, an avid proponent of the music of living composers, will present a versatile program featuring works for cello and electronics, including my most recent Talkback, which I wrote for her. For those who can’t make it, here is the recording from the premiere:
In the past two years, as part of my fellowship in the American Opera Projects’ Composers & the Voice program, I have been developing a new opera, Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins (Libretto: Nick Flynn). It is about homelessness, and I am now looking for a new home for it.